The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (5)

This is the fifth entry in the Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Bible Junkies Commentary. You can find the first entry hereIn the first entry I discussed introductory matters, such as the origin of the Church in Thessalonica, its early history with Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, and also introductory matters of scholarship, including the structure of Paul’s letters, modeled on the Hellenistic letter form, and noting such issues as whether the letter was written by the Apostle Paul. In the second entry, I gave an overview of the content in 2 Thessalonians. In the third entry, I started the process of commenting on the text itself, discussing the salutation, based on the New Revised Standard Version in English and the Greek text which underlies all translations. The fourth entry commented on the Thanksgiving and the apocalyptic themes found there. In this, the fifth entry, we begin looking at the claim that a letter purported to be from Paul is circulating in Thessalonica and an involved description of the apocalyptic events which must take place before the return of Jesus Christ.

4. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians:

Advertisement

c) Body of the Letter (2:1-3:15): i) Theological Teaching (2:1-8): Proper Understanding of the Second Coming. First part.

1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? 6 And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. (NRSV)

The beginning of the body of the letter starts by rejecting the claim that the “coming” (parousia) of “our Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1), “the day of the Lord is already here” (2:2). How could the Thessalonians have come to this belief? The claim seems to be based on a misinterpretation of Paul’s words to them, some prophetic utterance, or a letter that is supposed to have come from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. They are asked “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” either by “word” (logos), or “spirit” (pneuma) or “letter” (epistolê), “as if from us” (2:2).  The New Jerome Biblical Commentary understands the phrase “shaken in mind” (saleuthênai hymas apo tou noos) as “shaken from their wits,” perhaps implying “a kind of Dionysiac mania” (Charles Homer Giblin, S.J., 873). This seems possible to me, for the focus in this passage has always been on the “letter” and whether someone could have forged a letter as coming from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy claiming that the parousia had arrived, but equal weight should be on the “word” or the “spirit” which could have been uttered in tongues or in prophetic speech or even in an interpretation of Paul’s previous writing while in an ecstatic state. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, that is, are claiming that there is no communication from them, in word, ink, or spiritual experience, which supports their claim that the day of the Lord has arrived.

Some of the argument against Paul’s authorship of 2 Thessalonians is based upon the claim that scholars do not believe a letter could have been forged in Paul’s name at such an early date. I do not think it impossible that someone could have forged a letter and claimed it came from Paul even at this early date, which Michael Gorman also supports, but as he says, “it is more likely, however, that some sort of prophetic utterances have been made and associated with Paul’s name, perhaps in the context of worship when Paul’s teaching or correspondence was being discussed” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 175). I certainly do not see this passage as being a strong argument against Pauline authorship.

The transition in the letter is now to disproving the notion that the day of the Lord has arrived by recalling the oral teaching of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy when they were among the Thessalonians (2:5). They instruct them to “let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion (apostasia) comes first and the lawless one (“the person of lawlessness” – ho anthrôpos tês anomias) is revealed, the one destined for destruction (literally “the son of destruction”) (2:3). Two things must first take place before the end can occur: the rebellion or “apostasy”; and the revealing of the “lawless one.” While the exact language is not used in the Gospels, this does seem to fit generally with apocalyptic scenarios found in the Synoptic Gospels, such as Mark where Jesus speaks about the “desolating sacrilege” (itself language from Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11) (13:14) and “false messiahs and false prophets” who “will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (13:22). Indeed, the early Christians used different language to describe the “lawless one,” such as “antichrist” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:7; 2 John 7) and the “beast” of Revelation 13:1-10.

This “lawless one”  “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God” (2:4), which again draws on the imagery of Daniel 9:27, Revelation 13:8 and the Gospel traditions represented by Mark 13 and parallels. In all of these parallels the lawless one/beast/antichrist is presented as someone who demands worship and takes over the seat of worship, represented usually by the Jerusalem Temple. In the first person, Paul, we must assume, says, “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?” (2:5). All of this fits, easily, with what we know from elsewhere in the New Testament and early Christian tradition. What comes next is unique.

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy write that “you know what is now restraining (to katechon) him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it (ho katechôn) is removed” (2:6-7). This notion of “something” (to katechon) or “someone” (ho katechôn) restraining the “lawless one” is found only in 2 Thessalonians, which has led some scholars, again, to argue for non-Pauline authorship on this score. Though, if it is a teaching that is unique, one might argue its acceptance, and the acceptance of the letter, would be more readily achieved if Paul, Silvanus and Timothy were responsible for passing on this teaching than some unknown letter writer. Also important to keep in mind is that as much information as we have on early Christianity, we are missing even more data, which is the case for most ancient topics of study.

As to the notion of the “restrainer” and the identity of this figure, which is either a thing or a person, what or who could it be? Paul, Silvanus and Timothy say that “the mystery of lawlessness” is active already, which might mean simply that the power of evil or Satan is already active, not that the “man of lawlessness” is present, though I suppose one cannot rule that out in advance. What it does mean is that the “restrainer” is clearly also active now too. Could the force holding back, or restraining, the lawless one be the forces of evil themselves? That seems unlikely, though it is equally difficult to see God as the “restrainer” which holds back the “lawless one,” although Revelation 20:7 suggests a similar scenario of God releasing Satan from prison. Other suggestions have been the Roman Empire, Paul’s ministry, or the ministry of the Church itself.[1] On this score, it is impossible to know precisely what they authors were describing.

Nevertheless, once the “restrainer” is removed, “then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming” (2:8). The description of Jesus’ destruction of the lawless one might appear odd to modern readers, but it is based upon Isaiah 11:4 (“with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”) and similar to 4 Ezra 13:10 (“but I saw only how he sent forth from his mouth something like a stream of fire, and from his lips a flaming breath, and from his tongue he shot forth a storm of sparks”). That is, this image of killing with the “breath of his mouth” is found in Jewish apocalyptic thought and represents the word of God, or the word of truth, slaying the wicked.

The point of recounting  the previous oral teaching in 2 Thessalonians, up to this point, for we will have to examine 2:9-17 next week, is to establish that the day of the Lord, the parousia, has not yet occurred. Is this at odds with what Paul, Silvanus and Timothy taught in 1 Thessalonians that no one knows when the end will come and that our task is simply to prepare for the end by living in faith, hope and love? Is it contradictory to say in 1 Thessalonians to say that no one knows when Christ will return, and that he will come like a thief in the night, and in 2 Thessalonians to say that certain events must take place before Jesus will return?  Only if this is contradictory in the teaching of the Gospels, for Mark 13 (and parallels) have the same balance: certain events must and will take place, but no one knows when this will be, so stay awake, stay alert, and be ready. 2 Thessalonians, it seems to me, reflects one aspect of the early Christian hope, while 1 Thessalonians reflects the other aspect of the Christian apocalyptic hope. Which one is stressed in which letter seems to be dependent upon the situation on the ground in the Church. If you are proclaiming that the day of the Lord has already taken place, then it makes sense that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy will stress one thing: no the day of the Lord has not happened and this is what must happen before it occurs.

Next week, we complete 2 Thessalonians 2 and the rest of the apocalyptic scenario, including a difficult theological issue.

John W. Martens

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies

I encourage you to “Like” Biblejunkies on Facebook.

This entry is cross-posted at Biblejunkies

 



[1] For an interpretation of “the restrainer” as “the seizing power,” definitely not some restraining force, see Giblin, 873-874 in the NJBC. He understands the “seizing power” as some sort of demonic force.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Sources in the Vatican say they cannot understand how President Trump’s decision to recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel can be in the best interests of the United States.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 10, 2017
Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) holds two paper cranes in Oslo on Dec. 9. (AP Photo/David Keyton)
The pope was lauded at the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize for condemning the “false sense of security” of nuclear weapons.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 10, 2017
A reflection for the second Sunday in Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 09, 2017
Pope Francis prays during a prayer service at a statue of Mary near the Spanish Steps in Rome Dec. 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The pope wants to to clear up the confusion around the phrase “lead us not into temptation.”
America StaffDecember 08, 2017